Do the Old Testament’s commands apply today? Dr. William Fullilove explains how the commands of the Old Testament are relevant to believers and shares tools for applying the law in a modern context. Below is a lightly edited transcript.
People often ask the question, “Do the Old Testament’s commands apply today?” And this is one of those cases where we actually probably need to rephrase the question to give it a proper answer. Jesus in Matthew says, “I promise you, truly I say to you, as long as heaven and earth endure, not one jot or tittle of the law will pass away until all has come to pass” (Matt. 5:18). So Jesus is incredibly emphatic: Everything in the law matters. None of it just goes void. Now when we hear that it’s easy to say, “Oh, so we should just do every single thing exactly the way the Old Testament says it.” And that’s where we need to be careful and read and think very deeply about the Scripture.
Putting Commands in Context
Think of a silly example. In Genesis 15:5 God gives a command. And he says, “Go out and count the stars if you can.” But nobody, either Jew or Christian, therefore has made part of their life that every night they go out and try to count all the stars. Because we understand that was a command given by God to a specific person, Abraham, at a specific time, and it was a single command for just then.
But we also don’t say that that command is irrelevant to our faith. Abraham was struggling with doubt. God said this command to Abraham to say, “I’m the one who made all these. And I’m the one who’s in charge of all this. And I will make it happen.” And at that level we realize we desperately need the same thing Abraham needed because our experience and what God has said to us often feel like they don’t match very well. So though we don’t go and do what the command said, the command matters to us. We realize we desperately need the same thing Abraham needed because our experience and what God has said to us often feel like they don’t match.
Moral, Civil, and Ceremonial Laws
Now on the flip side, you get commands that absolutely are enduring moral statements. God says, “You shall not commit adultery.” And it’s pretty clear we are bound by that command the exact same way that anybody in ancient Israel was bound by that I command because it was a moral principle. And so theologians have divided the law into a set of categories called the moral law, the ceremonial law, and the civil law. And the moral law are principles that should always be followed by anybody, anywhere, we believe our faith teaches.
On the other hand the civil and ceremonial law were laws given to Israel at specific times when it was a theocracy, as an independent nation with a functioning temple complex. And as believers in Christ we don’t follow those laws because we understand that they pointed forward to Jesus, and they’ve been fulfilled. For those laws we have to recognize that God had a moral principle that he was applying to a specific society—Israel is a theocracy at a specific time. And to apply them to ourselves today what we have to do is stop and ask, “What is the moral principle that God was applying into that world?” And then figure out, “How do I apply that moral principle into my world today?”
Now that is a harrowing and messy process. There is nothing in the Bible that marks a law as moral or ceremony or civil. We just have to figure it out, and we have to study our Bibles carefully and deeply to understand, case by case, what would God have us do with this particular command.